Monday, 24 June 2019

London to New York air race winner reunited with his RAF Harrier jump jet 50 years later

London to New York air race winner reunited with his RAF Harrier jump jet 50 years later

A FORMER Royal Air Force test pilot who won a flying race from London to New York was reunited with his aircraft on the 50th anniversary of the feat.

Tom Lecky-Thompson was able to sit in the cockpit of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier fighter jet when he visited Brooklands aviation museum in Weybridge, Surrey.

The 84-year-old, who lives at the Towse Court sheltered housing complex in Icknield Road, Goring, won the Daily Mail Air Race on May 5, 1969 by flying across the Atlantic in six hours, 11 minutes and 57 seconds.

His plane was among the first of a new generation known as “jump jets” which take off and land vertically like a helicopter using nozzles to direct thrust towards the ground.

It was entered in the race as the Government hoped to sell the technology to the Americans.

After the race the Harrier was displayed for many years outside RAF Yeovilton in Somerset before falling into disrepair.

When Mr Lecky-Thompson last saw it in 2015, shortly after it was sold to a private collector in Yorkshire, the wings and tailpiece had come apart from the fuselage.

Then the anonymous owner hired Jet Art Aviation, a specialist restoration company, to return it to its original condition and then loaned it to Brooklands for at least two years.

Engineers stripped back more than a dozen layers of flaking paint then added a fresh one and replaced broken components with originals which they tracked down all over the world. The Harrier was reassembled at the museum and unveiled at a private event attended by Mr Lecky-Thompson, his children Neil, Sally, Claire and Louise and six of his 13 grandchildren plus some of his former colleagues and rivals.

He caught up with his friend Air Vice-Marshall Graham Williams, who flew a second Harrier on the race’s return leg, and was reunited with his old commanding officer Air Vice-Marshall Alan Merriman, whom he had not seen in more than 20 years.

Mr Lecky-Thompson said: “When I last saw the Harrier, I wasn’t surprised at its condition because it had been left outside to get worse and worse for some time.

“Fortunately, the metalwork underneath the paint was immaculate and they didn’t have to remove any rust.

“It was marvellous to see what they had done and I felt so proud as it looked terrific and was in showroom condition.

“They’d set it up exactly as it was for the race, with extended wingtips, and the paint was glossy, which we didn’t have back then.

“I can only describe the work as superlative. It is the best aircraft restoration I have ever seen as they’ve been meticulous in replacing the original parts using new ones only as a last resort.

“I could still remember where all the controls were as I was sitting in the cockpit, although I was amazed at how small it seemed — in my memory there was a lot more space. If you looked in the undercarriage bays, they were still full of coal dust from where I took off from St Pancras coal yard all those years ago.

“It was nice to be able to reminisce with the other guests and share a lot of banter — most of it unprintable! There’s still a lot of inter-force rivalry which never really stops.”

The Harrier is part of an exhibition called First to Fastest, which celebrates aircraft that have set records. It is alongside the Vickers Vimy bomber in which British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop flight over the Atlantic in 1919 and one of the first Concorde supersonic passenger jets.

Mr Lecky-Thompson said: “Brooklands is a very British-centred museum and the Harrier sits nicely with the other exhibits because it’s the epitome of British engineering and a great British triumph.

“I’m glad that people can learn about the race because it was a superb example of teamwork on a national scale — the Government, designers, technicians, the fuel tankers and air traffic controllers all worked together to ensure we got there in good time.

“It was quite tiring to visit but it was a tremendous event and I hope I’ll be able to return on a quieter day when the weather is warmer.”

His son, who lives with his family in Lockstile Way, Goring, said: “I feel very proud of my father, as we all do. There weren’t many people who did the entire race as many had other pilots following them.

“It’s amazing to think that it actually happened all those years ago — and that it was allowed. It probably couldn’t happen with our modern health and safety culture. Dad’s face lit up when he saw the jet and was reunited with the other pilots, which said everything.

“He always goes on about it being a team effort so I was pleased to see him being given the credit he deserves.”

Mr Lecky-Thompson learned to fly as a member of Abingdon air cadets and joined the RAF on a flying scholarship aged 17.

He married his wife Judy in 1960 and left the force in 1975 to work in the private sector. He retired in 2005 and his wife died four years later.

He started the race at the top of the BT Tower, then called the Post Office Tower, then caught a lift to the bottom before riding a helicopter to St Pancras station.

After taking off he travelled at speeds of up to 683 miles an hour and refuelled 11 times in mid-air by docking with a tanker plane.

He landed on a 90sq ft pad on a pier off 25th Street East and was driven to the finish line at the top of the Empire State Building by a police officer on a motorbike.

To see a video of the day, visit www.forces.net

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